Monday, August 27, 2012

Convenience, onions

Recently, once again looking for cooking inspiration, I turned to the Bittman Minimalist videos. I got some ideas, but was mostly distracted by the convenient emergence of things like a bowl of perfectly diced onions, or of breadcrumb-parmesan mixture. This is a common-enough cooking-show shortcut, but is less forgivable when the very point of these videos is to show how easy it is to cook from scratch. An asparagus dish covered in breadcrumbs and parmesan is only super-simple and entirely from scratch if, behind the scenes, an intern or whatever has not only procured but prepared the toasted/stale bread and cheese in the right quantities. If I were to recreate this dish, I'd need to do all of that on my own, not to mention assemble and disassemble, put through the semi-functioning dishwasher, then reassemble, the food processor. Not insurmountable, and I do this sort of thing all the time, but a far cry from the effortlessness implied.

This is, I'll admit, a point I've been making at WWPD since forever: home-cooking is worthwhile, but a pain in the neck. And as long as we've got professionals urging us to cook at home more - people who not only are furthering their careers every time they do chop up some onions, but who also have someone to do that sort of thing for them - the message fails to convince those not already on board. Even if you totally know how to cook, even if you have relevant spices and pantry items, you still need to grocery-shop, prep, and clean up from meals. This will always take time, and will never get more interesting.

So I of course approve of Tracie McMillan's latest in Slate.

So here’s my proposition for foodies and everyone else: Continue to champion the cause of cooking, but admit that cooking every day can be a drag. Just because it’s a drag doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it—we do things every day that are a drag. We take out the trash, we make our beds, we run the vacuum, we pay the bills. These are not lofty cultural explorations, but they are necessary, and so we do them anyway. This reality check is exactly what’s missing from our discussion about our meals.
This I can get behind 100%. (Well, almost - who needs bed-making?) McMillan came to this conclusion for far more noble/impressive reasons than I did - she was living on minimum wage as part of an experiment for a book, while I was, am, just a grad student. But no matter where you come at this from, no matter what you're prepared to spend on groceries, there's always this discrepancy between the time and effort it actually takes to prepare a meal from scratch and the simple, enjoyable process we're told to expect. And it's tough to find a way out of this, because those for whom cooking is a chore are rarely going to become professional home-cooking advocates.

14 comments:

Sigivald said...

I cheerfully confess that for breadcrumb coatings, I use prepackaged breadcrumbs.

They taste fine. Honest.

Phoebe said...

That's nice, but when Bittman says "breadcrumbs," this is what's implied. He will allow prepackaged, but grudgingly.

Britta said...

My mother, who pretty much only cooks from scratch, makes breadcrumbs in large batches and stores them in a large airtight container rather than making them fresh every time she needs them. It doesn't take much more time to make a lot of bread crumbs rather than a little with a food processor, and you can easily make over a year's supply. She saves the dry ends of bread on top of the fridge or in a top cupboard, so then when she makes crumbs she has about 3-4 loaves worth, and no bread gets wasted.

But also, prepackaged is fine too. I don't see why perfect has to be the enemy of the good, whatever Mark Bittman says.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I suspect prepackaged wouldn't be OK for the cheese.

As to the broader point, though, one challenge of home cooking, from-scratch or with shortcuts, is that not everyone making one recipe with breadcrumbs is making these on a regular basis. Breadcrumbs aren't the best example, because they're cheap and can be a way to use up old bread, but this is an issue with spices, things like that. Even an experienced cook trying out new dishes ends up with a lot of waste.

CW said...

Why stop at making your own breadcrumbs? Shouldn't you bake your bread? You do use organic flour, right? And not from King Arthur or Bob's Red Mill. You have to use that flour from the guy at the farmer's market who has a nearby wheat farm and his own small mill (he has a real old-fashioned mill stone!). The environmental toll of shipping wheat all the way from the Great Plains to Vermont or Oregon and then shipping flour out to the stores is just too much.

Phoebe said...

CW,

That too. See the first Prudie letter - that kind of attitude (unless we believe Prudie writes these herself...) is out there. And, of course, there's Alice Waters's way with eggs.

But in Bittman's defense, that's not what he's advocating. He's not a purist, but in a sense that's what makes the pre-chopped onions and the like all the more frustrating. (Let's not get hung up on breadcrumbs specifically.) He's saying, just cook, it's no big deal, which is on the one hand kind of true and a message people who think "home-cooked" means "12-hour soufflé" need to hear, and on the other, a point not made by emerging with miraculously pre-diced ingredients.

Britta said...

I think the problem with the "homemade breadcrumbs--why not grind your own flour?" point (not that there aren't probably people like that out there, or at least people willing to be portrayed as such in the NYTimes style pages, or Prudie columns), is that making your own breadcrumbs is actually super easy, requires no special ingredients or equipment and uses up stuff you'd otherwise throw away. What gets perceived as hard/time consuming ≠ what actually is hard/time consuming. It takes as much time to make a cake from scratch as it does to make it from a box (mixing dry ingredients is the easiest, fastest part of cake making), but making a cake from a box is perceived as easy, from scratch is perceived as difficult, etc.

Again, I think taking shortcuts which make sense to you is important to cooking and again, why make the perfect the enemy of the good? It's just that so many people are convinced that certain aspects of cooking are really difficult, when actually they're not and with practice they're often easier than the more 'convenient' option.

On the "snottier than thou" cooking attitude, I am extra snotty, because I see it as the overdone zealotry of converts :P (see, snottiness can be done in so many layers). I grew up with people who cooked "food" in the Michael Pollan sense from scratch (including my BF's mother, who is a chef of similar level to Alice Waters, though not famous), grew lots of veggies, did all the things that are now suddenly hip in Park Slope (cloth diapers, DIY curtains/furniture/knitting blah blah), and they're totally not pretentious about it. My BF's chef mom served us corn dogs out of a box or Little Debbie cakes just as enthusiastically as she made paella or risotto or chocolate mousse, and every adult had the attitude of "eat what people serve you and be gracious about it," even if it's melted Velveeta on a twinkie. Of course, I know my attitude is as pleasant as old money disdain for the nouveau riche, since it's a kind of snobby anti-snobbery with a twist of self-righteousness.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I think the breadcrumbs-why-not-flour can make sense, when you get someone like Alice Waters, but not really for Bittman, whose point is that you should cook simple meals at home. I agree with his point far more than with the egg-over-open-fire approach, and don't think there's much to be gained by presenting all home-cooking advocates as from-scratch purists.

That said, cooking does require steps, each of which are easy enough in isolation, but if you need to procure and assemble all the ingredients of a simple-sounding dish, not to mention clean up, this is far more involved than Bittman, say, suggests. But it's also totally worth it, and buying pre-chopped garlic, say, is easily avoided.

As for converts' zeal, maybe? But I think it's more that certain food writers almost cry out for 'do you grind your own flour'-type mockery, than that terribly many real people who go to farmers markets or use CSAs or whatever actually behave like this. Most actual humans, in my experience, understand that adulthood means eating whatever, barring (I repeat myself, I see) any medical or ethical (and I don't mean "organic") restrictions.

CW said...

Bittman probably wasn't a fair target of the "why not mill your own flour" bit, as I agree that he is one of the more reasonable food movement writers. His recipes actually work, aren't overly complicated, and don't require a million incredients.

There really is some guy at one of the Minneapolis farmer's markets selling horribly expensive flour that he milled using organic wheat that he grew. I bought some once and used it to bake bread. The bread was fine, but nothing special. Commercial mills do a fine job of milling wheat.

Phoebe said...

Oh, I'm aware of the farmers-market flour-sellers. This is not by any means a myth. And now that I think of it, at a Brooklyn bakery recently, there were people discussing getting some special flour from the South... But as a rule, cookbook authors and such aren't demanding anyone partake.

Britta said...

I read some article on Etsy about how no one makes a profit and actually the price of something would be a million dollars if you factored in labor hours + cost of materials, and at the end, the article is like, "oh, now we've rediscovered why there was the industrial revolution." Though perhaps more accurately, they should have said Marx's Capital vol. 1. I think a lot of the foodies are like that--sometimes homemade is way better than store bought, so they assume it's always the case, but it's not. At some point, homemade isn't better, it's just more time consuming and often worse.

I was a total romantic as a kid and my goal was to live a total DIY lifestyle off the land, and I also learned the hard way that this was impractical and silly, but not after a lot of really terrible food cooked and ugly "potholders" woven.

PG said...

I always think Etsy would be most ideal for things made-to-order. (And many people do use it that way, for everything from stationary to lingerie.) Thanks to the industrial revolution, shipping is very cheap now, so people can compete on at least a national (possible worldwide) basis on quality and price. A friend had an ambition in business school to start a business linking craftspeople in India to the diaspora for made-to-order wedding stuff, but I don't think anything came of it. Still, this seems about right: go ready-made for most things, while reserving the pre-industrial mode for special occasions. (Yes, it was cooler to have cards made by letterpress.)

Phoebe said...

Saving artisanal for special occasions makes sense, but cuts against what the pro-artisanal movement is all about. The problem is in part that they don't make things like they used to, but it's mainly waste. If you're treating H&M clothes as disposable, it hardly matters whether your four good work suits come from Zara or Etsy.

With food, it's the same idea. If your staples are all (gasp) supermarket-grade, but once a year your patronize a farm-to-table restaurant, you're doing it wrong. You're supposed to care about the quality of your milk, eggs, etc. (I can't bear to discuss breadcrumbs any further, but those too, why not.)

PG said...

Food might be a different matter inasmuch as we're concerned about environmental and health effects. If you're horrified by the miles-long stink of industrial farming, its runoff into water sources, etc., and/or worried about having all the hormones and antibiotics pumped into animals transmitted into your own body, then you're probably not buying based on artisanal charms but because Nicholas Kristof has successfully terrified you.